Last Sunday was Father’s Day. Spending time with my 88 year old dad and my own young adult children reminded me of how important fathers are in the lives of their children—as well as how important children can be in the lives of their fathers! I am proud of my children and would like to believe that I contributed something more than just my genes and checkbook.
Over the last few decades fathers have become increasingly involved in the process of raising children. Now research is showing the positive influence of fathers on their children from birth into adolescence and beyond. Involved fathers:
- Increase children’s academic success.
- Provide a positive model for how to treat and relate to romantic partners.
- Enhance their children’s emotional development and health.
- Promote independence and a more active involvement in the outside world.
- Reduce the chances of problems such as depression and acting out.
In short, fathers can have a powerful and positive impact on the development and health of their teens – even fathers who do not primarily live with their children. However, being an involved father requires taking an active interest in your teen by being a regular part of his or her life.
While tweens and young teens still value warm relationships with parents, older teens are often less enthusiastic about spending time with them. Finding ways for fathers to be involved in their teen’s lives may require additional creativity. Here are some of my favorite strategies for being an involved father:
- Find common interests that you can share. Unlike when children are younger and just happy to be with you, you may need to look a little deeper for common interests that lead to spending time together. For instance, I used to hike and camp with my twin son and daughter, something my oldest daughter would never do. On the other hand, she and I shared an interest in music and one of my fondest memories of her teen years was taking her and a group of friends to their first rock and roll concert.
- Make an effort to attend their school, club and athletic events. Most teens – even if they don’t acknowledge it – appreciate knowing that their parent is there to support or cheer them on. Fathers can bring an added element of recognition if this is something that you can’t regularly do.
- Embrace the opportunity to chauffeur your children and their friends to events. Rather than grumbling about having to drive your teen here and there, try to see it as a great opportunity to be a subtle presence in their lives. When my children were teens I found this to be one of the best ways to connect with them. When we were alone together, we had unpressured opportunity to talk about all kinds of things that we would never discuss elsewhere. When they were with their friends, I was the “fly on the wall”, listening as they discussed the latest dramas in their lives. I’m sure I learned more during these trips than I did in a month’s worth of dinner conversations.
- Let your teens know you love, respect and believe in them. Most of us are more apt to point out to our children how they have disappointed us rather than what they have done well. (As my grandmother use to say, we “tend to mine the dirt, rather than the diamonds.”) Moreover, we men have an especially difficult time expressing our emotions and verbally conveying our love and appreciation (just ask my wife!). For this reason, our supportive words can often have a very powerful influence on our children. After my wife told me how important it was to her when she was a teen that her father told her she was smart and beautiful, I made a special effort to regularly communicate similar sentiments to my daughters. Likewise, I still remember fondly how good I felt after receiving an award in high school when my normally inexpressive dad told me how proud he was of me.
When every day becomes “father’s day” and men are a meaningful part of their teen’s life, children thrive and fathers come to appreciate that parenting is one of the most important roles they can play in life.
Steve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension for more than 25 years. He and his wife have been married for 27 years and have 3 children and a new son-in-law.